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ATD Blog

Growing Talent Development Firms: How Context Affects Sales Leadership

Friday, November 20, 2020

The previous sales leadership blog post addressed the attributes most likely to describe an effective sales leader. Yet, these alone won’t result in effectiveness unless there is also a tight fit between the leader’s background and experience and the context for your business. Following are some of the factors of fit that are important to assess in evaluating either candidates or incumbents for a sales leadership role.

Cultural Fit

As may be the case with any new hire, they must fit the culture of the firm. This may be different if its sales culture needs a facelift. After all, that is why they are being hired in the first place. But there is also a corporate culture into which the sales organization must fit. For example, and perhaps most obvious, ethics play an important role in carrying out the business. While we would hope every business we deal with possesses a strictly above board and ethical environment, the sales leader must be closely aligned and support this type of culture in their sales organization. Other cultural characteristics such as meeting formats and expectations, desired and common communication modes, inter-office interactions, energy level, interpersonal respect, leadership style, and so forth offer signals as to how the sales leader needs to fit in. A hard-charging, keep-no-prisoners sales approach may work for a while, but only if results are delivered. However, in an opposite type of culture, this approach will not likely be sustainable.

Business Fit

By this I mean, how does the sales leader’s experience mimic the way business gets done for suppliers in the TD industry, specifically for your business sales model and how you go to market. In other words, do they have experience in the overall human resources industry and even your specific content arena, and what is the impact these have on how you typically go to market. This is not to say new ideas won’t work. For example, if their experience is largely through channel partners and your firm employs a direct sales force, it may be difficult to make that transition. Or, if you sell only online learning formats and their experience is with classroom instruction, leading the salesforce may also be difficult given the sales approach, with even likely different buyer descriptions for these two types of offers.


Company Size

I have often seen this mismatch wherein typically the new sales leader comes from a much larger business where sales support and resources are different—usually greater—than with a much smaller firm. Expectations for what they are used to and perhaps their inexperience dealing with a less-resource-rich organization could spell early disaster. Included here are the size and experience of the sales team and thus the requirement in the smaller company to perhaps get more out of less and for the sales leader to “carry their own bag.”

Brand Awareness

Similarly, if someone is used to working for a well-known organization where its name alone got them appointments, whether a large well-known enterprise or even a smaller but well-positioned TD supplier, it may be difficult for them to adjust to working for a lesser-known organization in the marketplace. Furthermore, brand attributes are executed in the way company employees think, act, and interact. So, misalignment with these expectations can generate a number of difficult challenges for those unused to behaving accordingly.


Contacts Level

Buyers come in all types and shapes, but if your potential sales leader hasn’t dealt with the more likely buyer personas for your firm, it may be difficult for them to adjust. For example, if they’ve only dealt with the C-suite and your buyers are lower-level talent development and learning associates, they will have to learn a new approach to managing the sales process. Similarly, if your buyers are largely from your clients’ purchasing departments, and they have little experience addressing these buyers, it could be difficult for them to adjust. Also, consider the type of “logos” you are accustomed to engaging as clients. Fortune 100 companies often buy in different ways than smaller businesses where there may be less red tape and bureaucracy but smaller purchases. Your sales leader will need to accept these potential differences.

Offer Simplicity

In the talent development arena, even those products and programs that seem relatively easy to understand require a different type of selling process than more commonplace widgets. Often the features and benefits aren’t as clear-cut when it comes to people development solutions, particularly if they involve customized consulting rather than off-the-shelf programs. If your offer is complex compared to what the sales leader is accustomed to, it may be a mismatch. The value proposition for your firm may be more difficult to articulate than they have been used to. Related to the value proposition is the whole issue around demonstrated results and return on investment. In the talent development field, this is sometimes more difficult to directly link to the offer than with many other types of industries and products.

How have you inserted these matching factors into your sales leadership selection process? What do you have to do differently to incorporate them? What other potential mismatches are you likely to encounter when you consider the role of your business model in selecting your sales leaders?

About the Author

Steve Cohen is founder and principal of the Strategic Leadership Collaborative, a private consulting practice focused on business strategy and development. A 40+ year veteran of the talent development industry, largely on the supplier side, he has demonstrated a proven track record for building equity by growing top and bottom-line performance for eight different consulting enterprises in the education and training industry he has either founded and/or led. He has been called on to consult with numerous firms needing strategic planning guidance, business coaching, and board advisory services.

His latest book is The Complete Guide to Building and Growing a Talent Development Firm.

He can be reached at: 952.942.7291 or [email protected] or at his website:

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